Commercial Vessel Compliance

3/15/2018: Subchapter M regulations and marine firefighting requirements – A discussion from two perspectives

Editor’s note: The Coast Guard will begin enforcing Subchapter M towing vessel regulations July 20, 2018, and it is important for tank and non-tank vessel owners and operators as well as towing vessel owners and operators to understand how Subchapter M may affect a towing vessel’s ability to be used as a resource provider in a Vessel Response Plan. To help our readers navigate this subject, Maritime Commons is publishing two perspectives in one post. The first post is written with the towing vessel owner/operator in mind, and the second post, immediately following, is written for the Vessel Response Plan holder. We hope you find them informative and as always, feel free to leave questions in the comment section below.

Things to Watch – The Towing Vessel Perspective
Submitted by Scott Kuhaneck, Domestic Compliance Division
Office of Commercial Vessel Compliance

As we move closer to the date where inspections for certification of towing vessels will begin under the provisions of Title 46, Code of Federal Regulations, Subchapter M, what should towing vessel owners and managing operators do to verify that the towing vessels they have identified for marine fighting activity are still going to be available to provide assistance in the event of a marine firefighting incident offshore, in the 12 to 50 nautical mile range?

As uninspected vessels, towing vessels were not limited to a specific route. Provided a vessel met other applicable requirements, such as a load line, a towing vessel could conduct work offshore including providing marine firefighting assistance with little or no limitation. Upon implementation of Subchapter M and a vessel being issued a Certificate of Inspection, the route will be identified. For those towing vessels that choose to remain available for marine firefighting operations offshore, they will need to ensure that their COI addresses this work, whether for drills and exercises, or an actual response. Companies that hold themselves out to conduct marine firefighting should have appropriately certificated vessels that are appropriately equipped to conduct these operations.

By working with their local Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection (OCMI), the towing vessel owner or managing operator can address the requirements that would allow them to conduct this work and/or a change in route. For example, a vessel with a coastwise route, which is good out to 20 miles offshore, may not be adequately equipped to conduct marine firefighting out to 50 nautical miles offshore. As many equipment requirements are tied to the vessel’s route, some adjustments to equipment may be needed to conduct marine firefighting operations.

Lastly, the vessel’s COI should reflect any additional personnel that will be added to the vessel to assist in conducting marine firefighting operations. If the towing vessel is using a Towing Safety Management System (TSMS), and the Master is applying the excursion permit provision of the TSMS (per 46 CFR 136.245), she/he should document what steps they have taken to use an excursion permit in this case. For example, the number of additional personnel carried and additional lifesaving equipment added to the vessel as a result.

If the towing vessel owner or managing operator should have vessel-related questions, they should contact their local OCMI at their earliest convenience to begin a dialogue on what, if any, changes may be needed so that their vessels can conduct marine firefighting operations offshore.

Things to Watch – The Vessel Response Plan Holder’s Perspective
Submitted by Chris Friese, Commercial Vessel Safety Specialist
Office of Marine Environmental Response Policy (CG-MER-1)

This blog post is intended to support existing efforts among VRP holders and their service providers to ensure Subchapter M-certificated towing vessels listed in VRPs meet regulatory planning criteria in geographic areas where their respective tank and non-tank vessels operate.

Subchapter M requires the majority of towing vessels to be inspected and certificated by the Coast Guard. Previously, as uninspected vessels, towing vessels were not limited to a specific route. This may change July 20, 2018, when the Coast Guard begins enforcing Subchapter M regulations on applicable vessels, potentially affecting where and how these vessels may operate.

Towing vessels have and continue to provide critical service to our marine environmental response community, evidenced in part by the requirement that they be listed within VRPs for response services. Such response services include salvage and marine firefighting and other emergency services, such as emergency towing, addressed in a VRP. Because Subchapter M requires applicable towing vessels be issued a Certificate of Inspection (COI), geographic limitations to operating areas and restrictions on operating conditions may now be different than the vessel’s capabilities as listed in an approved VRP.

Here are just a few examples of how Subchapter M may impact towing vessels listed as a resource in your VRP:

  • If your VRP is for an offshore area and the towing vessel resource listed in the VRP is now certificated for lakes, bays, and sounds, the vessel may no longer be capable of responding offshore in the event the VRP is activated.
  • A resource identified in a VRP may need to carry a large number of persons for response operations, such as marine firefighting, in addition to its primary crew. The number of passengers allowed in addition to a vessel’s primary crew will now be identified on the COI and may limit the ability to carry additional passengers.
  • The COI will also identify the vessel’s service and should align with the response service as identified in the VRP. For instance, a resource listed for emergency towing service in a VRP should not have a COI issued for passenger service.


To assist plan holders in their communications with resource providers, and ensure alignment with new Subchapter M requirements, the following information should be verified for any towing vessel response resources listed in the VRP:

1. COI expiration date
2. Vessel name and service
3. Total number of persons allowed, including persons in addition to crew
4. Route permitted (oceans, coastwise, limited coastwise, Great Lakes, lakes bays and sounds, rivers)
5. Conditions of operation (this may include weather and sea state, carriage of equipment and personnel, and requirements specific to vessel service such as firefighting or emergency towing)
6. Date of annual inspection endorsement.

For COI concerns specific to response resources listed in your VRP, the owner/operator of the response resource should contact the Coast Guard Officer in Charge, Marine Inspection (OCMI) that issued the COI. Contact info for all OCMI’s is posted below.

If a VRP holder has additional concerns or needs to update this information in a plan, contact the VRP Help Desk at 202-372-1000 or by email at

For general questions about Subchapter M implementation, please visit the Towing Vessel National center of Expertise’s website.

Graphic showing Contact information for Coast Guard Officers in Charge, Marine Inspection

Contact information for Coast Guard Officers in Charge, Marine Inspection

This blog is not a replacement or substitute for the formal posting of regulations and updates or existing processes for receiving formal feedback of the same. Links provided on this blog will direct the reader to official source documents, such as the Federal Register, Homeport and the Code of Federal Regulations. These documents remain the official source for regulatory information published by the Coast Guard.

Leave a Reply